27 February 2011

My favorite kiddielit cats

I recently read the latest picture book by British author and illustrator Ruth Brown, Gracie the Lighthouse Cat. Ruth Brown is not the household name that she should be in the United States, taking a back seat to more famous picture book Browns; Margaret Wise and Marc being the ones which spring to mind. Ruth Brown draws the natural world with a balance of delicacy and vigor, and her illustrations of animals in particular manage to bring out all their natural personality without overtly anthropomorphizing them (her professional collaborations with James Herriot, for instance, seemed like a match made in Heaven.) Her latest book, which tells two concurrent stories of rescues at sea--one based on actual fact and the other, perhaps not--continues in the style which works so well for her. Reading it, and admiring the cats she drew so beautifully, set me to thinking about some of my favorite cats in children's literature (I'll limit myself to picture books.) I know as soon as I post this I will think of many other favorites, and I'm hoping to get lots of other recommended favorites as well from my readers.

Sticking with Ruth Brown for the moment, I will start with Copycat. And anyone who knows me personally, and has met my cat Richie, will recognize the appeal this book holds for me! The copycat in question is a friendly tom named Buddy who loves to mimic the action of the other animals in the household. Buddy's playful parroting is revealed with peekaboo alternating half and full pages. It's a cute concept, and a cute story. Check out your local library for this one, as it is sadly out of print.

You've heard of library cats, right? This story is based on a real cat who lived in a church in Louisville, Kentucky. One day he turned up and made the church his home, where he eventually lived for 12 years as a well-loved member of the congregation. Ann M. Martin, best known for the Baby-Sitter's Club franchise, tells a touching story about how something as inconsequential yet monumental as a cat can bond a community. Illustrations by the incomparable Emily Arnold McCully complete this loving tribute.

What would a list of my favorites be without a mention of the Church Mice series by Graham Oakley? Incomplete--that's what! Samson is the long-suffering church cat who, after years of sermons about brotherly love, is unable to eat a mouse. He often finds himself at the center of their scrapes and schemes, whether he wants to be there or not. But his loyalty to Arthur and the rest of the mice is beyond question, and his place on this list well-deserved

Rotten Ralph will most definitely never be confused for a church cat. Or a well-behaved one, for that matter. The eponymous anti-hero of this long running series by Jack Gantos and Nicole Rubel (although new entries are not as frequent as I would certainly wish) lives with his ever-patient, ever-forgiving owner, Sarah--who looks to be no older than 8 or 9, by the way. Her parents disappeared after the first book, but Sarah is unwavering in her devotion to her vile kitty. In fact, when she sends him to obedience school in Not So Rotten Ralph, and nothing less than brainwashing will make him change his ways, she realises that she wouldn't change him for the world. More power to her. These subversively disobedient stories are great fun to read and must be a huge relief to really naughty children.

Nick Bruel's Bad Kitty is a relatively recent addition to the world of kiddielit kitty's. She's not as rotten as Ralph, but she is certainly just as funny. And making the jump from picture books to highly illustrated chapter books has meant more bang for your bad kitty. Reminiscent of Bill the Cat, with her bug-eyed manic expression and Tasmanian Devil-ish freak-outs, her aversion to baths, dogs, and Uncle Murray provide plenty of material for roping in reluctant readers.

Pickles the fire cat started out as a side character in Esther Averill's adventures of the Cat Club (most of which focused on shy Jenny Linsky.) He was a stray, hanging out in barrals and mooching off of kindly Mrs. Goodkind. Left to his own devices he would chase cats smaller then himself, which quickly gained him the reputation as a bad cat. He needed a purpose to keep him out of trouble. His mighty paws made him a perfect fit for the local fire department, where he proved himself a natural at coaxing timed cats out of trees. Hands down my favorite book from my childhood.

And while we are talking about cats with a purpose, let's not forget Henry, who at times has been a cross-country cat, a hot-air balloon cat, a sailor cat, and a high-wire cat. He is the beloved pet of Kid and the sometimes antagonist of Man, who shows a preference for the dog but can't seem to do without Henry. The success of this series is that Henry's escapades are grounded in the natural ability of cats, with--when required--a dash of the fantastic. Resourceful, brave, thoughtful, and charismatic, Henry proves time and again that--"Yow-me-yowl!"--he is "some smart cat."

You can't be a cat lover and not appreciate a book which celebrates "the mystical divinity of unashamed felinity" (to quote a certain well-known musical.) This book of poems by Tony Johnston and illustrated by Wendell Minor is not so much about a specific cat as it is about the cat experience. To prove that cats are a source of constant inspiration, the kitties on the cover of this book were none other than the cats of illustrator Minor himself (a third Minor cat also appears in the book.)

And last but not least, since we are on the subject of well-drawn cats, I must mention my all-time favorite cat illustrator, Anne Mortimer. This picture from Cats Sleep Anywhere by Eleanor Farjeon, while not my favorite Mortimer cat (that would be Tosca, from the series by Matthew Sturgis and annoyingly unavailable in a decent scan) is indicative of the quality of cat she produces. Her cats have appeared in books by Margaret Wise Brown, Edward Leer, and Sue Stainton and are always beautifully rendered and uncannily realistic.

Well, there you go! Let me hear about your favorite literary moggies.


pussreboots said...

I'd add Boris from Mama Cat Has Three Kittens. The Grumpy Cat is another favorite of mine.

jamie peeps said...

We LOVED Cross Country Cat! For some reason, even though we don't have any cats, due to allergies, that particular book was read over and over. The attention to detail made it SO believable.
thanks for sharing this wonderful theme!

Kara Schaff Dean said...

I love Grumpy Cat, too! See, I knew I'd forget someone.

jamie peeps said...

And I forgot to mention: one of my current illustration students is the niece of Jack Gantos.

Kara Schaff Dean said...

I'm glad you liked the post, Jamie. Yowl-me-yow!

Roberta said...

What a beautiful post about cats. Ruth Brown's books look gorgeous. I know some cat lovers who are going to appreciate these books.

Kara Schaff Dean said...

Thank you, Roberta. Picture books really provide a treasure trove for cat lovers.

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